The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s acquisition of three works by little-known 16th-century painter Orsola Maddalena Caccia (1596-1676) made headlines last year. Earlier this summer, I got to see two of them, a pair of large still life paintings, in the recently-rehung Old Masters galleries.
Fairly obscure even by the standards of historical female artists, Caccia was Italian nun and abbess who seems to have run an artistic workshop out of her convent in Moncalvo. The idea of a nun being a successful artist is certainly not new. In fact, scholarship has shown that convent life long represented one of the few available outlets for female creativity and industry. Caccia’s subject matter, however, adds a twist to this familiar story. Although she made many religious paintings, often to adorn local churches, the limited recognition she’s received has generally been for her still life paintings instead. Ill-fitting as this choice of genre initially seems, specialists in Caccia’s work believe that Christian meaning may underpin these fruit and flower compositions, which were possibly visual aids to prayer and meditation. The connection between flower arrangements and Christianity may feel a bit fuzzy to modern audiences, but I’ve learned from long study of European art history that almost anything can have a hidden Christian meaning if you want it to.
The interest in Caccia’s still lifes over her religious scenes continues today. The Met has chosen to display Fruit and Flowers and Flowers in a Grotesque Vase, but not the Madonna and Child with the Infant Saint John the Baptist it also now owns. While I prefer these still life paintings to the rather conventional religious scene, I do worry that this choice reinforces the stereotype that historical female artists painted plants rather than people. There has always been a strong association between women and the genre of still life, but less so with figurative painting. Showing that Caccia was fully capable of both would have been a nice way to challenge such assumptions.
I really enjoyed both of Caccia’s paintings display at the Met. The pair displays the unusually spread-out compositions common to her still lifes. Instead of packing her arrangements with objects and details, Caccia gave her objects room to breathe. Each fruit, flower, leaf, etc. inhabits its own separate space with its own bit of background. This shadow-box effect brings harmony and clarity to these images. It also calls to mind the tradition of botanical illustrations, a genre often associated with female practitioners. Some people might read naivete in this somewhat artificial conceit. However, I found its balance and restraint to be rather sophisticated and aesthetically pleasing.
Orsola Maddalena Caccia was little known and under-studied until quite recently. Because most of her works are still in local Italian collections, the Met’s three Caccais constitute the largest selection outside Italy. (The Yale University Art Gallery owns one painting as well.) The press surrounding Met’s acquisition, the posthumous gift of Errol M. Rudman, definitely raised awareness of this artist for the first time in a very long time. So did an auction record set for her Still Life of Birds at Sotheby’s around the same time. This painting of fourteen birds and insects sold for more than 14 times its estimate and more than seven times the artist’s previous 2018 auction record. More recently, her Saint Agnes sold at Sotheby’s in July 2021, albeit for a much lower price. She was featured in a 2015 exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts entitled Picturing Mary and had a 2012 exhibition at the Miradolo Castle in Monviso, Italy.
- Cascone, Sarah. “Meet Orsola Maddalena Caccia, the Remarkable Painting Nun Whose Work Just Entered the Met’s Collection in a Surprise Donation”. ArtNet News. February 4, 2021.
- Gaffney, Erika. “The Metropolitan Museum of Art Acquires Three Paintings by Orsola Maddalena Caccia”. ArtHerstory blog. January 19, 2021.
- Ghirardi, Angela. “Suor Orsola Maddalena Caccia (1596-1676), Convent Artist”. ArtHerstory blog. November 25, 2019.